Although it’s popular to accuse couples of setting themselves up for disaster by expecting too much from marriage, for many of us, the problem is exactly the opposite: We don’t set our sights high enough. In keeping our expectations low, we may hope to avoid disappointment and loss. However, this strategy contains some serious dangers. Limited expectations generate a modest vision of what is possible, and the single greatest factor in determining the outcome of any situation is our belief in regard to what it is ‘reasonable’ to expect. The more we believe is possible for us, the higher we are likely to set our goals. The level at which we establish our goals generally has much less to do with what we are actually capable of achieving than what we believe is attainable or realistic.
The Power of Expectation
Prior to Roger Banister’s breaking of the four-minute mile in 1954, it was deemed impossible for a human being to achieve that feat. Almost immediately after his accomplishment, other runners joined the sub-four-minute mile club. Within a decade, several hundred runners had done what ten years prior, had been seen as impossible. Such is the power of expectations.
When Linda and I got married in 1972, I deliberately set my sights low. All the better to avoid the disappointment that I was sure I would experience if I hoped for anything more than a comfortable arrangement in which we got along reasonably well and didn’t fight too much. Talk about low expectations!
Having been witness to my parents’ unsuccessful marital experiment, and having seen disturbingly few examples of thriving marriages, I approached marriage with a somewhat less than enthusiastic optimism.
All right, truth be told, from my perspective, the idea of a good marriage was an oxymoron.
Still, for motives that I couldn’t at the time quite fathom within myself, I seemed drawn, like a moth to the flame, to what I saw as an anachronistic institution.
My strategy for resolving the problem of getting into something that seemed to hold very little promise of anything but suffering and frustration, was to develop a strategy of minimal involvement. All the better to minimize the chances of disappointment and pain. Unfortunately, not only did my strategy fail to prevent disappointment, but it created a condition in my marriage that left me feeling unhappy and resentful. It very nearly led to a divorce. What I hadn’t factored into the equation was the fact that my head wasn’t the only part of me that was involved in my marriage.
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. Blaise Pascal.
My heart had it’s own agenda, and it too, wanted to have its say. The heart couldn’t care less about risk management, control, safety, security, and avoidance. It’s concerns have to do with passion, connection, intimacy, aliveness and joyfulness – experiences that exist outside of the bounds of practical considerations. Unless we marry for strictly practical purposes (something that is quite rare in contemporary Western culture), the desires of the heart need to be met and included in the equation. To the degree they are not, we will be unhappy and unfulfilled, regardless of how much security, status, or economic success we achieve. As the saying goes, “you can’t ever get enough of what you really don’t need.”
In my case, the (inevitable) breakdown took the form of complaints that both Linda and I directed at each other with increasing frequency and intensity, until things got to the edge of the breaking point. My way of trying to prevent disappointment took the form of minimizing the amount of time that we spent together and maximizing the amount of time that I spent on other, “more important” things. Namely, work. In so doing, I reasoned there would be minimal danger of conflict and we could maintain an adequate degree of connection, sufficient to get by.
Since my idea of minimalism flew directly in the face of Linda’s desire for whole-hearted intimacy, as well as own my heart’s desire for the same thing, I not only had a conflict with her, but with myself as well. In keeping my sights low, I had also kept out the possibility of the kind of connection and fulfillment that we both wanted. In trying to settle for what was inherently an unsatisfying relationship, I was both living a lie and trying to force it on Linda, who fortunately was unwilling to compromise her dream of a deeply-loving marital connection, regardless of the emotional risks that that might entail.
The lie was that I could be happy without an emotionally-fulfilling marriage. The truth was, that inwardly, I convinced myself that I was either unable, unworthy, or unfit for a truly fulfilling relationship. It didn’t make sense to even try for it. My rationalization that to hope for more was naïve and unrealistic, and that no one has that kind of marriage anyway except in fairy tales, were simply justifications for avoiding the risk of deep, emotional commitment.
We did make it through the crisis that brought us to the brink of divorce when I chose to join Linda in the game of “How can we make this marriage truly great?” and withdrew from the game of “How can I minimize the possibility of pain and disappointment?” It was only because Linda refused to settle for the kind of mediocrity that I was willing ot accept, that I chose to play her game. Had she been unwilling to put our marriage on the line as she did, there is no question in my mind that we would not be together today.
Without Linda’s vision of what was possible for us, and her insistence that we owe it to ourselves and each other to go for the gold, rather than the tin medal, I would never have chosen to ante-up to what seemed to be such a high-stakes game.
I learned from Linda that it takes a lot more to go for the gusto than it does to wallow in the resentment, self-pity, and dissatisfaction that are inevitable when we deny our heart’s desires. It takes vision, courage, commitment, determination, and patience. Lots of patience. I didn’t have much of any these when I opted into the game, but with Linda’s help and support, I came to join her in the dance and eventually became an equal partner.
A New Game
What we have come to enjoy together is not only infinitely more than I believed possible for us, but it has even exceeded Linda’s hopes for us as well. The quality of trust, connection, support, play, love, and creativity that we share together is off the scale, and still growing!
Our new game is about continually raising the bar (we take turns) to find out just how great things can become, not only for us, but for the many people whom we touch, both directly and indirectly.
To quote an old Bob Dylan song, “He who isn’t busy being born is busy dying.” This applies not only to individuals but to marriages as well. The notion that we can put things on cruise control and sail through life together with a minimum of consciousness and engagement and still experience a high quality of life, exists only in the realm of fantasy, not reality. To be busy being born requires the willingness to show up, to risk, to tell the truth to others and to our ourselves about what we truly desire, what we long for , and what brings passion and juice into our lives, regardless of whether or not we fear the risks inherent in pursing our dreams.
Several years ago, Joseph Campbell urged us to “Follow your bliss.” He did not say that this would be safe or easy. He just said, “Follow it.” We all have innumerable reasons to avoid this path and to instead take the path of least resistance, the path of least risk, the path of most familiarity.
Marriage: Not for the Faint of Heart
“Marriage,” to quote Stephen Levine, “ is the ultimate danger sport.” It is not for the faint of heart, and it is not for those who would chose the path of least resistance. It is the path that generally tends to provoke the MOST resistance, since we tend to attract and marry our counterparts, our complements, and living with people who embody our denied qualities is, to say the least, a challenging proposition. As I have found out with Linda’s help, it can also the path of greatest fulfillment, of greatest joy, and of greatest possibility. It is the path that insists that we awaken not only to our deepest desires and our deepest truths, but that we engage others in that same challenge: the pursuit of the fulfillment of what truly matters to us and the fulfillment of who we are as human beings.
Without Linda’s gentle, persistent, and insistent urgings, I would never have come to know this truth. I am and will continue to be grateful to her for hanging in there with me during those days in which I couldn’t hold the vision that she had come to trust. She no longer has to carry it alone, and we have become partners in the truest sense of the word. I invite you to join us in the dance.